Since they were 17 years old, Tony Champion and Kent Austin have crossed paths at big moments.
With Austin’s team facing an elimination game within 50 hours, Friday another of those moments.
Champion starred for the Tiger-Cats from 1985-92 with a 1656-yard, 95 catch, 15-touchdown campaign in 1989 when he made “The Catch” which forced the Saskatchewan Roughriders, with Austin himself at quarterback, to kick a last-play field goal to win the Grey Cup.
He is returning to Hamilton yesterday for the first time in 23 years, “to help support the team.”
Ticats director of fan experience Steve Lowe and his staff have been reconnecting with Ticat legends over the past few years and finally got Champion here from Tennessee with his daughter Kiara, who was born in Hamilton in 1990.
“I think it’s important to stay in touch with your history,” Austin says. “We believe in tradition and focusing on the right things as it relates to that tradition. It helps you stay committed at a deeper level to the franchise you play for.”
Austin is still pondering whether the Ticat legend will formally address the current players while he’s in town for Sunday’s game, but if he does Champion knows exactly the message he’ll convey.
“I try to tell people go out there and not get mad at somebody else, Champion said. “Do your job. If you do you job, I do my job, he does his job, we’re going to win.”
It was pointed out to Champion that the ball-hawking, ferocious defence of today’s Ticats is very similar to the defence that powered his teams to the Grey Cup championship in 1986 and runner-up spots in 1985 and in the ’89 SkyDome Classic against Austin.
“That’s how you have to do it,” he replied. “Right about now, Kent is missing a quarterback so you haven’t got a lot of the offence you want. So you have to make the defensive plays.”
Champion kept track of the transition from Ivor Wynne Stadium to Tim Hortons Field which he visited for the first time yesterday and gave it a five-star review. But he did mention that the Cats of previous eras did have a defined home field advantage because of the proximity of the stands, and the angry vocal fans in them, to the opposition players. He and Austin recalled quarters being thrown at visiting players.
The Argos, of course, were and still are the most eagerly anticipated targets of local fan abuse, but the bulk of that has been limited to the regular season, particularly on Labour Day, because the Ticats and Cats don’t see each other much in the playoffs.
For a pair of teams so indelibly linked to each other by highways and Labour Days, and playing in a four-team conference, the Tiger-Cats and Argonauts have met shockingly few times in the post-season. This will be just their fifth playoff tilt in the last 28 years. That’s because throughout their 65-year history in the “modern” CFL they’ve rarely both been good at the same time.
Champion played the Argos twice in the playoffs, losing the 1987 eastern semifinal but reaching the 1986 Grey Cup game, which they won, by beating Toronto 59-56 in a two-game home-and-home total point series they trailed by 14 heading into the second match at Ivor Wynne.
“Everybody lets you know about Toronto,” Champion says. “They told me when I got here that I don’t like Toronto. I said, ‘ Why don’t I like Toronto?” ‘We just don’t.’ I had to be taught to dislike those guys….and it didn’t take long. But it’s all good, and fun.”
When the Cats and Riders met for the 1989 Grey Cup, it wasn’t the first time that Austin edged out Champion for a major football honour. In 1980 Austin was the quarterback on the state of Tennessee’s first all-star team, and Champion was the quarterback on the second all-star team.
In 1989, Champion didn’t disclose to outsiders until after the Cup game that he was playing with broken ribs, and gave post-game interviews lying on his back while spitting blood. Somehow the pain didn’t prevent him from reaching what had appeared to be an unreachable pass from Mike Kerrigan, and impossibly contorting his body to haul it in.
“It might be one of the greatest catches, given the situation and the nature of the game and the fact that they were off the field with that down, that I’ve ever seen,” Austin said, “and it meant I had to go back on the field again.”
Champion said that because it was a third down and his team’s season would have ended without a catch, he had to make the play….as he will suggest to current players about Sunday: just do it.
What Austin likes about introducing Ticat legends to current players a generation, or more, younger is the human embodiment of possibility.
“Especially when you see guys like Tony who have accomplished so much, and why that’s important,” Austin explained. “ And now you have an opportunity to be one of those guys, and leave your own mark and be part of the history of this franchise.”